I attended a CBC Diversity event last night where a recurring theme seemed to be fear. People are afraid to publish books in case they get things wrong and there is a backlash or they draw criticism. And it led me to think about my own fears as a writer. I am terrified to blog this and admit my shortcomings to the world, but here goes.
Something I haven’t shared with a lot of people: The reason diversity in children’s literature has become so important to me isn’t because I’m a diverse writer, or because I was subconsciously seeking “mirrors” as a child that I didn’t find, though both of those are absolutely true. The event that really brought it all home for me was when my niece was born with Down syndrome. When I first met my niece, a tiny newborn baby at the time, I reacted in a negative way that I now am completely embarrassed about. I wish I could take back what I did and said, but it’s too late now. Since then, her birth has really opened my eyes to a whole world of innuendoes and insults I hadn’t noticed before, a world where intellectually disabled people are made invisible. I had previously thought I understood how hurtful the word “retarded” can be, but it is only now that I am truly beginning to understand.
And what really galled me was how much of the prejudice that I carried with me and acted upon was learned behavior. Not only things I had specifically been taught in medical school that turned out to be just plain wrong, but also things I had picked up while reading books and watching TV and movies. From the lack of intellectually disabled children in literature or the lack of positive role models with Down Syndrome in the media, Down Syndrome was something that “other” people lived with. Not someone like me and my family.
I wish I had been taught a better way to notice or engage with intellectually disabled people without waiting for a niece to come into my life. As a writer, learning to write realistic people and families with diverse aspects to their lives will definitely be a long term learning process and a struggle.
I am completely terrified that I am going to get things wrong, that what I write could cut someone I know or love very deeply. But if I’m trying to push myself as a writer to incorporate more of these very realistic people into my stories, that is a risk I’m going to have to take.